Positive action: does the boardroom need it?

Written by
Tom Ritchie

20 Oct 2016

20 Oct 2016 • by Tom Ritchie

The lack of black managers in football has been a persistent talking point over the past few years. Despite the healthy percentage of ethnic minorities plying their trade in the Premier League, the same representation has never been recreated in the dugout. Of the 92 managerial positions in the Football League, only three are currently occupied by black managers: Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at Queens Park Rangers, Keith Curle at Carlisle and Chris Hughton at Brighton and Hove Albion.

Earlier this week, former Manchester United and Aston Villa striker Dwight Yorke revealed that he has yet to receive an interview for a management job. While Yorke acknowledged that his lack of experience was a barrier to his appointment, he also cited his ethnicity as a factor in the lack of job offers. 

With the NFL making its return to the UK this Sunday, questions surrounding the league’s approach to diversity will inevitably spring up. In 2003, the NFL introduced ‘The Rooney Rule’, (named after legendary Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, a proponent of inclusion famed for giving African Americans prominent roles in his organisation) a stipulation that requires teams to interview at least one non-white candidate for a head coaching or senior operations role.

Since the rule was introduced, Tony Dungy has become the first black coach to win a Super Bowl, lifting the Lombardi Trophy when his Indianapolis Colts bested the Chicago Bears in 2007 (the coach of the Bears, Lovie Smith, is also black). When the Detroit Lions failed to meet this criteria in 2003, they were fined $200,000.

A Rooney rule for the boardroom?

Earlier this year, it was revealed that only 5% of positions in FTSE 100 boardrooms are filled by black people, a phenomenon that may be stifling workplace innovation. A survey by the CIPD found that groups such as mothers returning to work are still victims of unconscious bias in recruitment. So is a very conscious policy of positive action, similar to that of the Rooney Rule, the way to improve workplace inclusion? Or should businesses go a step further, and look to promote diversity through filling a quota of under-represented groups?

The standard argument against positive action is its lack of meritocracy. If businesses are putting pressure on their recruiters to hire based on demographic rather than skill, it could negatively affect productivity as the right person is not chosen for the job. Kim Hoque, professor of HR management at Warwick Business School feels this may create a culture where certain groups are branded as ‘tokens’ in the workplace: “There is a danger that women and minority employees promoted into senior positions will be viewed as ‘tokens’, with their credibility undermined as it is perceived that they have not achieved their seniority on the basis of their own merits, but a result of a quota system being in place.

“There is also the concern that positive discrimination is itself discriminatory given that, rather than making the workplace more equal, it places discrimination onto the dominant group (so-called ‘reverse discrimination’).”

While this argument may be logical, it can only be proven true if we deem current recruitment practices to be fair: “As we know from the research on recruitment and selection, there is a great deal of favouritism, nepotism and cronyism in selection decisions, and the ‘old boys network’ is alive and well. Over the years, this has all served the advantaged group (white men) very well. 

“It’s a bit harsh, therefore, to judge quota systems as unduly un-meritocratic, or to say they will have negative performance implications, when existing selection processes are themselves often not particularly meritocratic in nature”, Hoque adds. 

Are quotas fair?

As for efficiency, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that a quota based system does have an appreciable negative effect on productivity. Take Norway as an example; due to legislation introduced eight years ago, all private and public boards must have women in 40% of their positions. There has been no negative effect on organisational efficiency. 

Could such a policy benefit countries such as the US? In a 2016 report on 'Women in the Workplace' it was revealed that America promotes men at 30% higher rates than women during the early stages of their respective careers careers. Professor Claudia Joncyzk of ESCP Europe Business School believes that in these instances positive action would definitely help to address this imbalance: "Faced with these findings you can argue that “positive discrimination” is simply levelling the playing field. And if companies just do this, level the playing field, women or ethnic minorities will feel more included.

"As studies have shown a critical level of diversity (not just the one token women!) does have positive effects on team creativity and decision making quality for complex problems so the company (and its shareholders) do benefit from it.”

Kate Headley, director of diversity consultancy the Clear Company, believes that for positive action to have a beneficial effect, it can only be used in an instance where the under-represented group is as suitable for the role as their competitors. If not, it can lead to the wrong hire being made: “Taking positive action where recruitment processes are open to subjectivity and bias, and recruiters are poorly supported in inclusive practice, results in poor quality, often indefensible appointments, encouraging a perception that diversity is about ‘lowering the talent bar’ in order to recruit from under-represented talent groups.

“I hear the comment ‘I am simply trying to recruit the best talent, not the most diverse’, which exposes a belief that diversity comes at the expense of ‘good’. But the words, ‘best’ and ‘diverse’, are intrinsically linked and neither should take precedence over the other.”

So is positive action the way to go for football clubs? If we take the NFL model it would appear so. Rather than quota filling, a move towards giving under-represented groups a chance in an interview setting could open the floodgates for some new blood. Much in the same way that boardrooms are typically composed of members of  ‘old boy networks’, managerial positions in English football are often filled by re-treads (see Steve Bruce, Harry Redknapp or dare I say it Big Sam). An infusion of diverse, adequately qualified talent could see a revolution of new ideas, both in the boardroom and the changing room.